GC: Marvin, how did you get started playing music? Describe some of your earliest musical memories, and how did you go from that to wanting to become a musician?
MS: There was a guy by the name of Wallace Beard, he lived across the street from me and played bass. At the time I was heavily into baseball, wanted to be a professional baseball player. I played baseball every day.
GC: How old were you?
MS: Probably about nine, ten to around thirteen or fourteen. I played baseball every day, watched baseball, knew everything about baseball. I used to really enjoy when the games were delayed by rain. In between that, they would show these clips of professional baseball players giving tips. It’s because growing up in an inner city, a lot of times the problem with playing baseball is not that you’re not good, it’s that you haven’t been trained. You don’t know what to do.
GC: And you’re from Chicago. What part?
MS: Primarily the west side, I grew up in what we used to call a
rough part of Chicago called the Lawndale Community or K-Town, its nickname. Then we moved near the suburbs to the Austin area, which is right across the street from Old Park, Illinois. So when we moved to the Austin area there was this guy named Wallace Beard who played bass. He was a really cool guy, had all the girls, great bass player. I wanted to be like him, so I’d hang out with him and learn to play bass. But I’m left-handed, so I learned to take a right-handed bass and play upside down. And then I started hearing cats like Ernie Isley, Jimi Hendrix and I started hearing more stuff on guitar, so I switched to guitar. And Wallace used to play with a lot of gospel bands, basement R&B bands, so I used to go to the rehearsals and hang out and watch the guitar players and see what they were doing, and finally decided that I thought because it would give my parents an incentive to get me a cheaper guitar, I decided to switch and play it on the right side. But that didn’t work. (laughs) My uncle had bought my brother a guitar a few years back, he had bought him a Silvertone that you get from Sears and Rollbuck. They’re worth a little bit of money now, it was a guitar that came with the case and within the case there was an amplifier. So I started messing around with that and hanging around the guitar players at these basement bands, and I was just trying to learn chords and pick up what the rhythm guitar was doing. So I started getting into that and one time I found myself trying to be slick. A cousin of mine gave me a Mel Bay book to check out and then one time I found a book that had thousands and thousands of guitar chords. And it was good, and it was almost like that old saying where a dog chasing a car, and once he catches it he doesn’t know what to do with it. I knew all of these chords, I didn’t know - the book didn’t have any applications. And I learned how to do a lot of that. Somehow I got hooked up with a summer job at Malcolm X Community College and they had a big band. And I started getting into that and I really start going into a jazz stretch, but before that I was into the soul, rock, R&B. Then I heard Stanley Clarke’s record “School Days” and that flipped me out. At first I didn’t understand it, I thought it was crap, I was like “man, what is this stuff”, you know. And then it kept growing on me, I was like “this is killing!” I had never heard anything like that. Then from that I heard a Duke Ellington record on the radio that flipped me out. I think it was Duke Ellington and Walter Blanton. The bassline tripped me out. I said “what is he doing? Is he playing chords on every note?” and that’s how I really started getting interested in jazz. I used to hang out with this guy, his name was Mike Smith. His name is Adonis now, he’s a house music pioneer. We used to hang out, and he hipped me to a lot of the European fusion cats like Allan Holdsworth, Bill Bruford. But in addition to that, his grandmother used to own a record shop in the 60s. So when she had all these records, she had Giant Steps, Wynton Kelly records - she had everything. Paul Chambers records...”Bass on top”, another record with the headlights on it, I forget the name of it. She had all of these records, all the classic stuff. And that’s how I got exposed to jazz, I was like “wow man, who are these people? I’ve never heard of them!” When I first heard Giant Steps, I didn’t know who I was listening to, I just heard all these colors! What is this, and who are these people? I heard never heard of Charlie Parker, or Dexter Gordon. When I started playing with the Malcom X Community College big band, with the summer job and all, I started learning how to apply some of the stuff that I was doing and “oh, and this is how you hook this up, this is what’s going on”. From there I heard about Charlie Parker and Dizzy. I used to see Dizzy on TV with his cheeks puffed out, but I didn’t know the music, so I started learning about that and it just kind of bloomed. Plus Chicago has a deep history of the blues, so in the background that was going on. There was an old man in my neighborhood that we used to tease “ah man, that cat’s playing that loud blues” and stuff like that. He’d kind of comment and say “one of these days, it’s gonna catch you!” And it did! That sound. I would imagine he was probably listening to people like Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, my uncle was heavily into Howlin’ Wolf and BB King, all of that. So that’s how it all starting coming in, and also I just happened to be walking down Michigan Avenue - Chicago has a rich history of music - and I passed by a Symphony Hall, that’s what it used to be called, I think it’s called Symphony Center. And I saw the names Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and I think Wagner and I didn’t know any better, I said Wagner! (pronouncing the W). So I start looking these guys up in the encyclopedia at home, and I checked out Wagner, thinking “what is this ring cycle thing?” and I started getting interested in that. So it just started blooming after a while, and it kind of started coming together.
GC: So you got into classical music totally on your own?
MS: Yeah. Yeah, just out of curiosity. I was just wondering who these people where. I knew Beethoven because there was a commercial band that did a disco version of Beethoven’s 5th...Walter Murphy or whatever?
GC: (sings brief interpretation of Beethoven’s 5th with a disco beat)
MS: (laughs)I wanted to know who these people were, and I really wanted to know that music out of curiosity.
GC: Now what about your parents? Were your parents into music at all?
MS: Not really. My mother liked a lot of gospel music, very much that’s it. Just gospel music. When I started getting records I used to play jazz records and stuff. My mother liked jazz as long as it was played softly. My father was into country music. I remember one time I was heavily into this UFO show. I forget the name of the show, some show in the 70s. And there was this Elvis Presley special that was on TV and I said “oh I’m going to get my father to watch this.” I walk into the room, my father is lying down, his feet twitching to the beat of Elvis Presley with a big smile on his face. My father sort of liked the Country/Western that HE liked, there was a particular record he used to play, I don’t even know who performed it, but it was kind of a silly song. I never really heard my father into people like Howlin’ Wolf or James Brown. All of that stuff came through my brother. James Brown, War, Traffic, all sorts of psychedelic-type stuff, and later The Crusaders, instrumental music. I used to think Shaft was this long, instrumental thing because you didn’t hear any words for a long time. He was into stuff like that. Earth Wind and Fire, things like that. I got exposed to that style of music through him.
GC: So this is mid-70s now?
MS: Yeah. My father did play early on, but -
GC: He played?
MS: He played trumpet, but he wasn’t playing by the time I was born and growing up. I found this out later.
GC: So now you’re going to community college. Were you going to community college, or just involved in the program?
MS: I was involved with the program back in the 70s, they had this thing
called CETA jobs. I don’t know what the acronym means, but Ronald Reagan cut that stuff out quick.
GC: Of course.
MS: (laughs) I was involved with that, so I was still in high school. But I was playing with the Malcolm X Community College big band playing guitar, trying to learn how to read and accompany, so I got a lot of direction from a lot of people. There’s a few...I don’t know if too many people know of these guys...Elmer Brown on trumpet, he used to play in Jaco Pastorious’ band. Vincent Carter used to head the big band.
GC: Did you know Lonnie [Plaxico] back then?
MS: No, but I had heard of Lonnie. It’s kind of a funny thing, because this guy O’Donnis was studying with Lonnie, so the information that he was O’Donnis (Mike Smith) was getting from Lonnie, I’d get from him. He’d say “man, Lonnie told me to transcribe this entire Paul Chambers bass line on this Coltrane record”. I said “oh really? dig that” and stuff. So that’s how I basically knew Lonnie indirectly. One time I saw him drop by Michael’s house to get something or pick up something, but I didn’t know him in Chicago. I met him in New York.
GC: So after high school, what did you do?
MS: After high school, I got accepted into Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University. I got there as a composition major. Which was cool, but I changed my major after a couple years. I’m glad I held that major for about 2-3 years because it gave me some ideas on improvisation and composing, and it got me access to private piano lessons.
GC: Now had you ever played piano before college?
MS: No. The only experience I had playing piano was this one time playing piano at a friends house, and I just start banging on it, just playing notes and pretending. I think I did it for two hours. I didn’t know what the hell I was playing, just hitting stuff and listening to the sounds.
GC: You had never played piano before?
MS: Never, never played piano before. I started my piano formal lessons in college. I took two years of group piano, and then for the next maybe 3-4 years I studied with Felize Gonz. Basically he kind of read the Riot Act to me, he said “if you’re a composer you should be able to do score reading, be a great sightreader, you should be able to play piano. That’s why you’re here.” We were painstakingly trying to read through those Bach chorales. And he had a particular technique of reading through the chorales and stuff, not just all 4 lines. He would have be read just the tenor or the bass, put it in different combinations. So you’d be able to read horizontally, then you put it together vertically. Because I think the chorales are harder to read if you take a couple of lines at a time. It’s because a lot of times with the chorales if you read the whole thing vertically, you can hear what’s going to happen. He had me play in the beginning, my first year, little Bach preludes, stuff out of small parts of music, this book called “Modern Classics” and stuff. I remember learning a Tchaikovsky piece. Little things like that. The following year he gave me a Chopin polonaise to play. The one in C minor. I can distinctly remember having a look on my face like “damn”, and he looked at me and said “you’re not a beginner anymore”. I had asked him, I said that I wanted to hear pieces that interested me. He’s the person who introduced me to Brahms’ music. He gave me pieces out of Opus 116, The Fantasies. To me that’s a great set of pieces to actually learn how to take a theme and actually develop it. All seven pieces are based upon a particular theme, or some type of downward or upward motion or some type of movement or counterpoint or rhythm. All seven pieces. I don’t think any of his sets of shorter pieces are like that except the Fantasies. So it was a great selection. I think that the first piece I learn was Opus 16 No.6, then No.3 which is more difficult, then No.4. Then later I learned the rest of them. They were great pieces to start with and learn about what’s going on. Then I’d play Scriabin preludes, Mozart, and Beethoven, which I had difficulty playing. Things like that, basic piano repertoire.
GC: What kind of things were you writing as a composition major, and did your development on piano affect your writing?
MS: Yeah. Things that I was writing with composition at the time...we were dealing with a lot of rhythm. I was taking a composition class for commercial writing, television commercials and things like that.
So yeah, we were learning how to hook up music with the time code. And they’d do interesting things...they’d say “you could use any rhythm you want, but only four notes. With these four notes, you have to put something together, create something.” So I learned how to do that. The whole aspect of it was that you had to put limitations on yourself. What can you do with this amount of information? How micro can you get with just this amount, instead of having this whole thing and having too many choices? Or they’d give me a series of notes, tell me to take a particular line, whole steps and half steps or whatever, and put it in retrograde and do all sorts of things with it. Also my piano playing helped me with composition because I was learning the classics, like with Brahms and themes. I was studying music history and learning Debussy too, and learning Stravinsky - well, learning about Stravinsky. What they were doing with melody and with chords. Not so much what they were doing with rhythm as far as history, but in the Classical era what they were doing with rhythm and how it was more rhythmically daring that the Romantic era. I learned about sound, how these two notes on these two instruments sound when they play together. How is it voiced, if you do a particular voicing. I learned about taking two different chords and putting them together and seeing what kind of sound that was, and what kind of colors you could get, how you move from one thing to another. Create some type of harmonic movement as well as a melodic movement. Counterpoint and the use of color, use of space. The use of tension, the use of power, the use of lyricism.
GC: So you changed your major?
MS: I changed my major to music business.
MS: (laughs) Yeah, it was interesting. Because it wasn’t what I thought it was. I thought about it would be about the music business, but it was music/business. I had taken a lot of finance classes, I was in the finance club where they gave us money to invest in the market.
GC: Really! Wow!
MS: Yeah, just a small amount.
GC: A million dollars.
MS: (laughs) So that was a small club, I got into that. I had to take a bunch of music education classes. That was kind of hard. But I myself continued taking piano lessons because that was most interesting to me.
GC: What about guitar? Did you take guitar lessons?
MS: I took guitar lessons outside of where I had attended. It seemed like the guitar department at the University was a bit too dogmatic and didn’t take into consideration that students are different people. It was like they had a program no matter what level you were on, they were always going to start you out with the Sor book. Fernando Sor. I had a teacher outisde of that where I was learning classical guitar technique. He was a very good teacher, his name is Dean Nelson. He was a bass player who learned how to play classical guitar. He taught me a lot about trying to create, not just the notes, but trying to create a sound and different timbre and how to orchestrate on the instrument. Try to really deal with music.
GC: Well yeah, that’s what’s been really striking about hearing you play over the past two weeks is that in some ways its not the typical things that I hear from guitar. It seems like, we were talking about instruments being in a box, but I feel like a lot of times with guitar there’s certain things that guitarists tend to do. They have voicings that are everywhere, everyone’s doing these voicings. Again, it could be on any instrument, but would you agree with that? Are you even conscious of that? It just seems like you have a completely different approach than a lot of the guitar players I’ve been around.
MS: Well...from early on, when I started listening to jazz music...I don’t mean to sound messed up, but the last thing I wanted to sound like was a guitar player. When I heard Joe Henderson, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Bud Powell - I said “that’s what I wanted to sound like.” Much love to the guitar greats, I used to listen to a lot of George Benson, he’s one of my favorites. But it was a conscious effort to listen to him up to a certain point, because I didn’t want to sound like him, or any guy. Because I knew a lot of players that sounded just like Benson or Joe Pass or whoever their favorite was, and or me the way Cannonball or Joe Henderson or Don Byas, the way they phrased, I wanted to spit out stuff like that! Or Bud Powell! I wanted to do that. So I started hanging around cats - there was a disadvantage to that because there were mechanics of the guitar that I was learning until later, but I wanted to see what the piano players were doing, or see how horn players phrase and things like that. It was a conscious effort. A lot of times guitar is almost like a community. It’s this small community world and people have their favorite guitarist, and this group had their favorite, and it’s very (as Sonny Sharrock said) it’s an insular group. You have this tendency where they listen to each other and therefore everyone sounds alike. I’m not trying to say I’m not anything like them, but sometimes I try to avoid that a little bit.
GC: I think it’s interesting too that this band that we’re currently playing with - you’re playing guitar, but you’re not playing in the way guitarist play. And then you have someone like Don Byron taking the clarinet, Eb clarinet, playing things you don’t hear. That’s already something that a little outside the box. And then the way Jack [DeJohnette] plays is atypical of a lot of drummers, but it’s a very musical way. There are times where I don’t consider myself a pianist because I think I have less - you probably took more piano lessons than I did, in terms of classical repertoire. I just try to play what I hear and I’m influenced because I played trumpet, and so on. So there’s this interesting approach, and do you think - maybe this is a leading question - but do you feel that everyone should approach playing music this way, or improvising? Not necessarily to think in terms of their instrument?
MS: I think it’s important for me, I would say. I think it’s important to think more about playing music. I think you should, and being a musician...because somebody can be a great instrumentalist, but maybe not necessarily be a great musician. You know what I mean?
MS: I think, because I come from a thing where to me it’s all about the ensemble. And of course when it’s your time to shine it’s your time to shine, but the best feeling to me is when the ensemble is creating something, instead of what I call the “Concerto concept”, where you have a blank-faced rhythm section accompanying the soloist. To me what makes people really deal with music is when the ensemble makes it happen. When you really have to deal with music instead of like “I’m going to dial this lick in”, because someone might play something that rhythmically is in a different place, or a different chord, or playing in another key. What you have programmed isn’t necessarily going to work and at that point you have to deal with music and not with mechanics or your licks or whatever. You have to start using your ear and start creating. I think it’s more important. I’d rather be a good musician than a great guitarist. My philosophy is sort of the same as what Andre Previn said. To me, if somebody says “man, that Marvin Sewell is a great musician” that means more to me. As one girlfriend told me, she said “just because a person knows how to type fast doesn’t mean that they’re saying anything when it hits the paper.” So that aspect of it is to me more important. I will admit that I do a few things, like solo guitar stuff, which is cool and I want to develop that more, but that’s not where I have fun. To me the social environment of playing music and connecting with people on stage is the greatest feeling to me. When people have this connection...sometimes it’s good to do your solo thing and to be there but when you have a community of people on stage creating something, and when it’s on, there’s no better feeling than that.
GC: I agree with that. That to me is what makes playing with Jack so special, there’s always this sense of communication which is challenging, because you can never go on autopilot because you never know what’s coming around the corner. The way he plays is so interactive, and it’s not so much a beat as it is a conversation. Constant improvisation, and yet everybody has a place. I think that’s what interesting about the way you approach this gig. I can tell that Jack is excited about it because things that you do with comping, he’s reacting, he’s trying to figure out stuff that works. It’s that stimulation that keeps us alive.
MS: Jack is one of the greatest listeners in music. I can’t tell you the depth...I remember I did a recording with him and I played something...and he just...when you hear him with Keith Jarrett or any other group. I’m sorry to sound “Facebooky”, but I feel blessed! God is good!
It’s a great honor to play with somebody on that level, on that level of listening. The conversations that he has...I listen to him talk, and the amount of knowledge that he has. It’s not in a “I know this” type of way, it just flows out of him. Just like the music that comes out of him. He’s constantly aware of things. I remember one time, when I first did a gig with him. I was so damn nervous. I was on stage with Gary Thomas, Lonnie Plaxico, Michael Caine, and Jack! And I was so nervous that I was kind of facing the band instead of the audience, and I remember Jack came to me, this was years ago, and he said in a loving way, as just a suggestion, “if you notice when I’m playing, you notice sometimes I’ll look up when I do my solo. I’m checking the audience, I’m trying to make a connection to them, make a connection to somebody.” Years ago I heard Arthur Rubenstein say the same thing. Making a connection, because it’s not just about us over here playing it. “It’s just a suggestion”, he said, “why don’t you check that out?” It really helped me, the next concert I felt the energy. Even if it’s just one person, or the aggregate energy of the crowd, the flowing energy. It’s that type of stuff that really helped me. I think playing with Jack in that short amount of time I did really helped me accompany singers, playing with Cassandra [Wilson], and playing with other people. I said “man, this cat really hears everything and is really open”. Playing with him has been an invaluable experience.